The Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs begins with a Buddhist epigram, though not a particularly memorable one (something about "Continuous Hell" being the worst of the eight hells). Perhaps more important than the passage itself are the echoes it raises of Jean-Pierre Melville's seminal 1970 policier Le Cercle Rouge, which also opened with a Buddhist citation (though in this case one made up by Melville himself): "When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, they will inevitably come together in the red circle."
Despite its atrocious title--it sounds like a sequel to The Devil in Miss Jones--Infernal Affairs is a worthy descendent of Melville's cinema of criminal cool and a film equally suited to his invented quote. Its men of diverging paths are a cop who has spent years posing as a gangster and a gangster who has spent years posing as a cop. The "red circle" where the two will ultimately meet to have their fates decided is a sun-bleached roof looming over downtown Hong Kong.
It's a long road to that rooftop rendezvous, however. The movie opens with its two protagonists still in their teens. Lau, the young recruit of a drug kingpin named Sam, is assigned to join the police force and work his way up through the ranks as a mole. At the academy, his path briefly crosses that of Yan, a promising cadet who is apparently expelled for breaking the rules. In fact, Yan's dismissal is merely a cover story: He, too, is beginning a career as a mole, infiltrating Hong Kong's gangs on behalf of the police. Fast-forward ten years to the present day. Lau (now played by Andy Lau) is a young hotshot detective working under police superintendent Wong, though still secretly reporting to drug lord Sam; Yan (Tony Leung), now one Sam's deputies, is informing on him to superintendent Wong.
The event that launches the film's dramatic arc is an attempted drug bust, presented as a terse game of cat and mouse between Sam and Wong, with each relying on his man in the other camp to keep him a step ahead. The outcome is essentially a draw: Thanks to a morse-code-tapped message from Yan, the cops are able to break up the drug deal, but Lau warns Sam by wireless email in time to destroy the evidence. As a consequence, each side now recognizes there is a mole in its midst, but neither knows who it is. The situation plays out like a brilliant, funhouse variation on the Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out: Superintendent Wong assigns Lau the task of finding the department mole (i.e., himself), while also telling Yan to see what he can learn from inside Sam's gang; Sam asks the same of Yan, his presumed underling, and Lau, his secret operative.
It's an ingenious construct, and if the perfection of its symmetry sounds forced, it doesn't play that way onscreen. Co-directors Alan Mak and Andrew Lau (who also served as co-cinematographer and producer, but is not related to star Andy Lau) present the story straightforwardly, with a minimum of self-congratulation for the cleverness of its premise. The visual style of the film, with its gleaming urban blues and silvers, owes much to Michael Mann, but here too the filmmakers decline to show off: Though frequently striking, the camerawork is also brisk and unwallowing. Thanks to the heady pace--and the constant danger that one or the other protagonist will be found out--Infernal Affairs has the feel of an action movie without resorting to the tiresome obligations of car chases and exploding buildings. In contrast to the John Woo-style mayhem that prevails in so many Hong Kong releases, there's no violence at all until the one-hour mark. On a few occasions, the movie slips into a stereotypical sentimentalism, but these digressions (chiefly a subplot involving Yan and his pretty psychiatrist) are mercifully brief. For the most part, Infernal Affairs is an object lesson in narrative economy. Though Mak and Lau are meticulous in setting up the movie's myriad twists and developments, they don't waste a lot of time walking viewers through them. (When Yan runs into a former girlfriend, for example, the filmmakers hint both that she left him because she thought he was really a gangster and that he is the father of her young child, but they never spell out either point explicitly.) Infernal Affairs is the increasingly rare entertainment that expects its audience to do a little bit of work themselves, and it is all the more engaging for it.
The script, by Mak and Felix Chong, is notable not only for its mind-teasing ingenuity, but also for its emotional richness, which is admirably conveyed by a top-flight cast. Leung, an actor who appears to have cornered the Asian market on bedraggled soulfulness, gives Yan the haunted air of a man who sees his real life slipping away. It's a performance that belongs in the undercover canon with Serpico, Donnie Brasco, and Leung's own earlier turn in Woo's Hard-Boiled. If Leung brings depth to Yan, Andy Lau plays the role of Lau as all surface. His fine features and smooth demeanor recall Alain Delon in the Melville films Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai, and also Guy Pearce's Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, another ambitious young policeman, albeit one with different motivations. (As with Exley, there's even an interrogation-room scene in which fellow officers watch as Lau craftily tricks a suspect into revealing information.) Though Lau is a double agent within the force, he takes obvious pride in his skill as a detective--and in the advancement it has made possible.
The supporting cast is strong as well, with veterans Anthony Wong (who played the villain in Hard-Boiled) bringing a wry likeability to Inspector Wong and Eric Tsang imbuing Sam with a childlike self-regard. But it's the lead performances that linger after the film is over. In presenting us with a cop who worries that he is becoming a gangster and a gangster who dreams of being a real cop, Infernal Affairs wisely rejects the usual genre tropes about the seduction of evil. In their place, it offers a refreshingly unfashionable idea: that, given the choice, most people would rather be the good guy than the bad guy.
About the only disappointing aspect of Infernal Affairs is that it offers a reminder of just how dull and predictable American crime thrillers have become. Every year, Hollywood churns out its buddy-cop movies and its heist movies and its FBI-agent-seeking-and/or-sleeping-with-a-serial-killer movies, but one has to go back to L.A. Confidential to find a crime film as compelling and original as Infernal Affairs. As if to underline the point, an American remake is already in the pipeline, to be directed by one of our last true innovators in the genre, Martin Scorcese. But don't wait for the knockoff. See the original.
The Home Movies List:
Notorious (1946). One of Hitchcock's darkest offerings and, not coincidentally, one of his best. Yes, it may be for a worthy cause, but the self-loathing with which Ingrid Bergman prostitutes herself and Cary Grant acts as her pimp gets under the skin and stays there.
Charade (1963). Grant again, but treating Audrey Hepburn far better, despite a little indecisiveness about his name. A delight from beginning to end, which makes it the exact opposite of Jonathan Demme's wretched remake, The Truth About Charlie, which should be avoided at all costs.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). Probably the best mole-hunt ever committed to film. The six-hour BBC miniseries (available on DVD as of last year) features Alec Guinness at the height of his subtle powers. Like its hero, it is precise, deliberate, and quietly magnificent. (The same can be said of its sequel, Smiley's People.)
Shining Through (1992). Melanie Griffith went undercover twice in one year, infiltrating Nazis in this howler and Hasidim in the equally ridiculous A Stranger Among Us. Her career may have started going downhill as a result, but she still got off lucky: In real life, performances like these would have gotten her killed.
The Imposters (1998). No one is who they seem in Stanley Tucci's throwback screwball, which reunites his Big Night cast and adds the deliciously silly Oliver Platt. The latter half is uneven, but the early scenes are priceless, particularly a hilarious scam-gone-awry set in a pastry shop.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.